Page last updated at 01:39 GMT, Thursday, 1 March 2007

Hercules safety 'still lacking'

Hercules C130K
Military families have been campaigning for safety measures

Only seven of the Royal Air Force's 48 Hercules aircraft have been fitted with special foam to prevent explosions, the BBC has learned.

An absence of explosive suppressant foam (ESF) has been blamed for the death of 10 servicemen in a Hercules air crash in Iraq two years ago.

One former squadron commander described the situation as "criminally insane".

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the programme to fit ESF would be completed by the end of the year.

The 2005 Hercules crash was the UK's single largest loss of life in the present conflict in Iraq.

Explosive vapour

It is thought the crash occurred when vapour inside a fuel tank in the Hercules's wings exploded after being hit by enemy fire from the ground.

A pre-inquest hearing on Wednesday into the crash heard submissions that the aircraft's fuel tanks were not fitted with ESF, which stops the vapour forming.

Relatives of the lost crew have been calling for the foam - used in US aircraft since the Vietnam War - to be fitted to the entire Hercules fleet.

Defence correspondent Paul Wood said the aircraft were being used so intensively in Iraq and Afghanistan it was difficult to take them away from the conflict.

I believe there's a very real chance that next time we could lose 50 or 60 people on a Hercules
Nigel Gilbert
Former Hercules pilot

The Ministry of Defence has said the deaths would not definitely have been prevented had explosive suppressant technology been fitted, but announced in April 2006 it had decided to fit it to some Hercules aircraft.

An MoD spokesman said: "The Hercules C130K has been the work horse of the RAF transport fleet since it entered service in the 1960s.

"It's been maintained to the highest standards of the RAF and has an excellent safety record. Lessons are being learned from operations and safety is a primary concern."

Last October, relatives of lost crew handed a petition bearing 2,858 names demanding the measures be installed on the Hercules fleet, which is based at Lyneham, Wiltshire.

Security

Sarah Chapman, whose brother Sgt Robert O'Connor was killed in the crash, said that she believes more deaths are inevitable.

She added: "I know I will one day be writing to a family member about the loss of their loved one following a death on the Hercules aircraft."

Nigel Gilbert, a former Hercules pilot who flew with special forces in Afghanistan, said the MoD had done "too little, too late".

He went on: "I believe there's a very real chance that next time we could lose 50 or 60 people on a Hercules."

Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox said British forces will feel let down by the news.

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: "This is a disaster waiting to happen."

The Lyneham crew members who died were Flt Lt David Stead, 35, Flt Lt Andrew Smith, 25, Flt Lt Paul Pardoel, 35, Master Engineer Gary Nicholson, 42, Chief Technician Richard Brown, 40, Flt Sgt Mark Gibson, 34, Sgt Robert O'Connor, 38, and Cpl David Williams, 37.

A ninth RAF man on board, Sqn Ldr Patrick Marshall, 39, was from Strike Command Headquarters at RAF High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Acting L/Cpl Steven Jones, 25, was a soldier serving with the Royal Signals and a passenger on the Hercules.

EXPLOSIVE SUPPRESSANT FOAM SYSTEM
Graphic showing how safety foam can help protect Hercules
1. Without foam: Explosive mix of fuel vapour and air above liquid fuel ignites easily. Once this ignites, a compression wave pressurises the remaining gas, increasing the explosion.

2. With foam: Foam expands to fill space in tank as fuel level drops. Vapour ignition is confined to the area close to spark, stopping explosion.



Have you been affected by issues covered in this story?

Your comments:

Isn't it a sad reflection that we the families have had to push for these aircraft to be fitted with ESF, and it is to the shame of the Government,MOD and the hierarchy of the RAF that not only have we had to do this at a time that we are all still grieving for our loved ones but have had to seek recourse through legal channels to press the importance of this matter home. The driving force behind our campaign is that it is too late to protect our sons, but not too late for the protection of others who daily fly these aircraft in danger zones and throughout the world.
MR R STEAD, ENGLAND

I was in the Gulf when this happened and my brother is in Basra now. Both of us are in the RAF and I am deeply concerned by this as the C130 is the main aircraft used to move people within the Gulf region.
Gary Brailsford, UK

I Work in the military and can say from personal experience that the management think only in terms of money not in terms of people. We are a commodity to be traded against risk. If we spent a fraction of the money spent on protecting the parasitic politicians in this country then we might have better equipment.
Andrew wise, UK

I think it is appalling that little seems to be being done about a situation that is so easily corrected. My Brother is a hercules crew member and I think that the Government should be making this a high priority to ensure his and his crew's safety whilst serving this country.
Paul, United Kingdom

It has been known since 1939 before the Battle of Britain that unprotected fuel tanks were highly dangerous to even a rifle calibre bullet. Hurricanes, Spitfires, Me109's, Wellingtons etc were fitted with protection as an urgent priority. All USA Hercules aircraft are fitted with suppression fuel tanks as have the vast majority of other aircraft of this type. The UK have recently purchased a number of the latest version of the Hercules and these don't have the protection. There can be only one reason, that the government have put money savings before people's lives. That is unforgivable.
David Slack, UK

That only 7 Hercules have been protected with ESF, 3 of them botched and leaking fuel, is an indictement of the MOD, the RAF, and the British Aircraft Industry. The remainder of the fleet should be protected as a matter of the very highest priority, probally in the States or Australia where a faster and better job will be done, with luck (and we need plenty) it will prevent a disaster. I flew RAF Hercules in the late 60s/ early 70s.
Robin Cane, England



video and audio news
The Hercules aircraft in action



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